Thanks in part to highly lauded health benefits, the popularity of green tea has exploded worldwide. Backed by promises of weight loss, anti-aging capabilities, and the novelty of a natural bright green color, green tea has become a trending ingredient in everything from cookies and cakes to lattes and protein shakes. But few of these concoctions gives center stage to the green tea itself, instead blending (often powdered) leaves with fillers, sweeteners, or other strong flavors to mask the inherent bitterness of mass-produced teas.
Unfortunately, the small quantities used for subtle green tea flavor are rarely enough to offer the promised benefits, and the quantity of butter and sugar in a green tea cookie will more than offset the metabolism-boosting effects of the powdered tea that makes it green. To get the most from any green tea, it must be a regular habit, drunk without added flavors or sweeteners. Luckily, this doesn't mean you have to choke down a bitter brew. Find green teas that taste good naturally by asking about these flavor factors:
When was the tea harvested?
Harvest date is the most important factor in the flavor of any green tea, though exact date specifications can vary based on the climate and year-to-year weather of the growing region. To generalize, the best green teas are harvested early in the spring, when plants begin to sprout new leaves after winter dormancy. The young leaves that emerge after the long dormant period grow slowly, and gather stored sugars from the plants roots as energy to power growth. Plucking these tender budding leaves yields a tea that is naturally sweet, much like baby arugula or spinach.
In contrast, leaves that grow quickly during warm summer months convert naturally sweet compounds into bitter ones that help repel pests, while sending any extra carbohydrates to be stored in the roots for next spring. The resulting mature leaves are large and plentiful, but bear the characteristic bitterness that often requires sweeteners.
Finally, take note of the year in which the leaves were harvested. Modern crafting techniques have improved the shelf life of many green teas, but the minimal processing they undergo leaves them prone to slow oxidation in storage that can degrade the fresh flavor. Look for a bright green color, rather than faded brown, as a sign of fresh leaves, and always store your tea away from light, air, and moisture.
Where was the tea grown?
The location of the tea garden can have a big impact on the flavor of the tea through both the soil and water quality, as well as the climate and weather. High elevation tea gardens, for instance, may not begin harvesting until late in the spring season, but cold temperatures and the slower resulting growth can make their teas more prized than earlier harvests at lower altitudes.
As traditionalists at heart, we also pay attention to what each tea-growing region is known for. We source most of our green teas from Zhejiang, which has been at the center of green tea production since at least the Tang Dynasty. Varieties, growing methods, and crafting techniques have been tested, refined, and passed down in this region for centuries, culminating in a rich culture of local expertise. This expertise has been exported to many regions throughout history, but continues to be most effective at producing delicious tea in conjunction with the unique environmental factors of this traditional region.
Of course, tea makers in other regions and countries have developed their own specialist techniques. Japan, notably, has developed fully independent standards that fit their own unique environmental factors and local tastes, despite taking initial cues from Chinese traditions. Just as we wouldn’t look for a Dragonwell green tea in Japan, we don’t seek out Matcha in China. Instead, we look for experts within the traditions of each style.
How was the tea crafted?
Finally, the finishing steps in the crafting process can also change the flavor profile of a tea. Green tea must be heated to stop the oxidation process and retain its vibrant color, but variations in the method can create dramatic differences in the finished product. Pan-roasted Dragonwell teas, for instance, are toasted, nutty, and round in flavor, while quality Japanese greens, typically steamed, are hearty and savory, with rich umami notes.
For all the flavor changes these heating steps can impart, they can’t salvage natural sweetness from a bitter summer harvest, or draw forth the flavor notes of traditional terroir in a transplanted tea. To mask the flaws of mediocre tea, or create consistency across multiple batches from different farms or years, large companies often use artificial flavorings. While the peach-flavored green tea from the grocery store may taste better than bitter, it is no thanks to the mass-produced base tea, and is unlikely to offer the same benefits as a fresh leaf. For us, the natural nuances of fresh tea are infinitely more interesting.
Of course, each palate is different, and the traditional Chinese green teas that we love may not be for you. That’s okay! Learn to describe the teas you love in the context of harvest date, provenance, variety, and craftsmanship, and finding new favorites will be simple.
What’s your favorite green tea? Tell us about it in the comments!
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